Heidi Bohaker comments on rare find of 340-year-old map of Toronto

October 16, 2018 by Department of History Staff

Geographer Rick Laprairie has been studying early maps of the Great Lakes for about 25 years, but he recently came across what he calls "a piece of Toronto history that no one else had really noticed" — the earliest known map with what would eventually become this city's name.

"I was really trying to put together a list of maps that would Identify the geographic evolution of the area that Toronto sits on, as well as the names."  

During his research, Laprairie learned of a 17th century map of Ontario at the Bibliothè​que nationale de France in Paris. In March 2017, he ordered a high resolution, digitally enhanced copy of it and when he received access to it, he got the surprise of his life.

"I almost fell off my chair. I could actually read that name and I knew right then and there, it was something entirely new."


University of Toronto history professor Heidi Bohaker specializes in the Great Lakes region and relations between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. 

"One of the things the French empire and British empire did while they were colonizing is that they made maps of the lands they were claiming. So there was a really important role for those cartographers. The maps are a wonderful source for historians," she said.

"One of the interesting things about how they were made is that a cartographer like Franquelin, who made this particular map, was based in Quebec City so he wasn't' travelling about making the map," Bohaker said.

"He's interviewing people who've been in the region. And that was quite typical of how these maps were made. He would make them based on older maps that he would have, and new information."

British colonel John Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, founded the town of York in 1793. Just over 40 years after being founded, York was incorporated as the city of Toronto, reverting to the former Indigenous name.

"The name Taronto had become so ingrained prior to ... Simcoe coming here, that it is because of the authority of the cartography that included that name that the city's fathers thought it would be acceptable to go back to that name." said Laprairie.

Bohaker says variations of the Toronto name have been used by Indigenous people for thousands of years and the early map gives us time to reflect.

"It's an opportunity to think about Ontario as a long-time Indigenous homeland and what that means for ... those of us who have made our families' histories here as settlers," said Bohaker.

'Tarontos Lac': Geographer finds oldest known reference to Toronto on 340-year-old French map